The 49-0 rout of Southern Mississippi was as much a personal victory for Hughes as it was a team triumph. Because in a game full of big plays—obviously most made by the Bulldogs—it was the senior safety who made maybe the most dramatic one. And, did so in his own return to active status after a year on the Mississippi State sideline.“I sat out a season, and just to be back…” Hughes paused. “I felt I kind of owed it to myself.”
Now that anyone could understand. But then only a ballplayer who endured the sort of wait forced upon Hughes could relate. It was in last year’s opener in Houston that Hughes, the starting strong safety, saw (and obviously felt) the season end on only the sixth snap with an Achilles injury. So he’d spent the past 363 days waiting, working, wanting to be on a ball field again.
“Oh, man, I prepared well, and I knew what I had to do coming in to the game. And I just played my position. It’s simple, just work hard and do what you have to do.”
Simple? Easy for Hughes to say. And in fact he made his half-ending interception sound simple. The Golden Eagles, down 28-0 already and with eleven seconds left to intermission took a shot at getting points from the MSU 45-yard line. Hughes, yeah, he’d prepared well for what was a rather obvious situation anyway.
“On that play I was just middle-of-the-field. I knew they were going to go deep because of the time and ready the quarterbacks’ eyes. He’s one of those quarterbacks that he’s going to throw wherever he’s looking at. So I saw him looking deep and crossed over. I saw Taveze (Calhoun) running with the man and just played the ball in the air.”
Played it perfectly, sliding over for the end zone interception to send Southern Mississippi to their locker room with no points and plenty frustration. But wait; Hughes had more in store.
This time with some help, as the Eagles set up a field goal spotted on State’s 20-yard stripe. Ito Smith got the ball off but not far as DE Preston Smith stuffed it. The ricochet rolled off to the left side (MSU’s right) where Hughes was charging already. The ball bounced up nicely at the 32 and Hughes kicked it into top gear. Without, he insisted, taking any glances at the new videoboard on the north end.
“Nah, I wasn’t watching at all! I was just trying to get there, make sure nobody was coming to catch me.” They weren’t as LB Matt Wells and Calhoun made sure USM’s #29 (there were two of them) had no opening. Hughes had last scored a touchdown as a Oak Grove senior in the state championship game against South Panola, and none left him this winded. Happily his old OGHS classmate WR Robert Johnson literally carried Hughes back to the sideline.
“He knew I was tired!,” Hughes said. “I laid down in the end zone.” Exhausted, sure, but exhilarated. “It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt before.” No, nobody missed the irony of two Hattiesburg natives enjoying victory in their one shot at the home-town school.
Of course just dressing out, warming up, and getting on Scott Field for the first time since November 2012 was a pretty great feeling too. Funny though, Hughes is not regretting all the missed time. “It made me look at the game from a different perspective. I kind of saw the game in the coaches’ eyes.”
But then a Dog can only wait so long. Which is why Hughes, spiffy in braces-and-buttondown, was celebrating such a triumphant return.
“I’m back, man. I’m back.”